Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Clashing events

I received an email from the Institute of Physics Nuclear Industry Group about an interesting talk they are organising on 20th November at 7pm.  It's on the topic of the closure of the last nuclear civil research reactor in the UK; Imperial College's CONSORT reactor, in Ascot, Surrey.

It may come as a surprise that Universities used to have their own nuclear reactors for research.  These are much smaller reactors than commercial power station reactors, and were used for all sorts of research into nuclear reactors themselves and related materials and engineering problems, along with applications of the neutrons to research into solid state physics, neutron physics itself, and applications of radiochemistry.  What's more well-known is that the first nuclear reactor was a University–based research reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, built under a sports field on the University of Chicago campus.

I expect the organisers of the talk will not mind me giving them some free advertising to readers of a specialist nuclear physics blog, and details can be found on the IoP Nuclear Industry Group's published newsletter, for those interested.  

I'd go to the talk, except for the fact that my colleagues Jim Al–Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden have invited me to the launch party for their new book "Life on the Edge" – a scholarly tome about microfauna inhabiting U2's guitarist a popular exposition of the role of quantum mechanics in biology.  The launch party clashes with the nuclear physics talk, alas, and I've already said yes to the party.  Such is life.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Crossword prize!

On most weekends I attempt to buy the newspaper (The Independent, or Independent on Sunday) and then attempt to read some of it, and do the prize crossword.  More often than not, I succeed in some measure in doing these things, though I often don't end up buying the paper until late on in the day, if at all.  This weekend, I've managed to buy the newspaper both days, and read a good amount of them.  I've done the crossword from yesterday, but not started today's yet.  Still, I was alerted via Twitter this morning that I won the crossword prize for last week's Sunday prize crossword.  How exciting!  I shall gratefully receive the dictionaries that come as the prize, though perhaps like most people that solve crosswords, I do happen already to own a reasonably good set of crosswords.  Perhaps they ought to start offering as prizes the sort of things crossword solvers would be rather unlikely to own.  I'm not sure what that would be, exactly.  Any ideas?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Visiting Oak Ridge

My last post was about a visit to UMass, Lowell, to see a student on placement as part of the MPhys research year as a University of Surrey student.  After a tedious day of delayed and cancelled flights, I made it form Manchester (New Hampshire) Airport to Knoxville (Tennessee) Airport, and on from there to Oak Ridge, where the University travel agents had booked me in the Quality Inn.  One might assume that anywhere that feels the need to put such positive words in their establishment's name must feel it has something to prove.  In common with most standard US motels, it was perfectly decent, if not distinguished in its quality.  An Acceptable Inn, perhaps it should have been called.

I spent yesterday visiting Sarah, who has spent her year in the wild recesses of a part of Tennessee once considered sufficiently remote from civilisation to have a secret city for the Manhattan project built there.  As expected, Sarah is getting on famously there, and the visit was more of a formality and an excuse to thank the hosts for looking after her with dinner in the brilliantly–named Chez Guevara restaurant.  Not only does it have a good name, but it was better Mexican food that you could reasonably expect in Tennessee.

Now I'm in Charlotte, North Carolina, hoping to be on a plane back to London, but sitting in the departure area because the plane has "maintenance issues".  At least it gives me a chance to write a little post about my visit to Sarah in Oak Ridge.  Unlike with Bobby in UMass, I didn't go around the lab and get a good picture for this post.  Instead, here's a snap from the oldest part of Oak Ridge – the slowly decaying area with sidewalks where people used to be seen out and about, before cars and strip malls became synonymous with the outdoors.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Visiting Lowell

One of the things that makes our MPhys programmes at Surrey different to other places, is that our students spend a year away from their home institution on a research placement.  It could be at another university, or at a private or government laboratory, and it could be close to home, or far away.  Wherever it is, our students get a unique experience of physics research.  

When our students are out on placement, they get visited by us – the Surrey academics – to make sure things are going okay, and to provide a bit of contact between the home and host institutions.  Today was my turn to visit one of our students, Bobby, on placement at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.  I've never been to Lowell before, or met the group here, so it was a real pleasure for me to come and see them, and the University here.  Lowell is an old industrial mill town in the Northern part of Massachusetts, near the border with New Hampshire.  Very different from the parts of the US that I know well, such as Tennessee, where I used to live.  I'm pleased to say that Bobby is getting on very well here.  He's enjoyed his time greatly, and there has been a lot of mutual benefit between him and the group with his being here, working on radiation detectors.  

The picture shows Bobby (left) with the two professors here that he's been working with – Partha Chowdhury and Kim Lister.  They are standing next to the main beam line of the accelerator facility housed at the UMass campus.

Tomorrow I head to my old stomping ground of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to see Sarah, who is on placement there. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

I was in France

As promised, last week I attended a workshop in France, at GANIL (pictured) in Caen.  I talked about the work of Phil, my recently–completed PhD student who, and whose work, has featured much in recent posts.  My talk seemed to go down well, and some good comments inspired some useful concepts to bring up in the paper that I am (supposed to be) writing up.  I shall have to acknowledge the commenters in the paper.

I was glad I went to the meeting, though it was a little bit of a flying visit.  I spent more time travelling than attending the meeting, and had little time to see the sights.  As ever in France, I made an attempt to talk to people in French.  Mostly they responded to me in English, which certainly aided my understanding of them.  

France now seems like a long time ago.  I'm now in the USA, to visit some of our (University of Surrey's) MPhys students on their research placements.  All this travelling and waiting round at airports means that I should have plenty of time to get on with things.  I have a to-do list for my trip and have been getting through the tasks.  Writing this blog post isn't on it, but getting on with my edit of the papers coming out of Phil's thesis is (along with preparing course material, commenting on student reports, my annual appraisal, preparing some slides for a colleague who is on his way to a partner university, chasing up some placement student possibilities for next year, and writing some BSc project proposals).  I will try to knock one of those things of the list now, before I head out for the evening.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

We stop-start, shoogled aboot in our seats

I spent today in a meeting in Edinburgh talking about the activity in UK nuclear theory to the committee of NuPECC - a Europe-wide body that oversees nuclear physics research activity.  I had the prescience to book a flight up yesterday that was due to leave around 5:30pm.  Prescient because all flights from Heathrow seemed delayed by around two hours because of the weather.  Rather than getting to my hotel at around 8:30pm, I was there more like 10:30pm.  But okay - I certainly came off better than my poor colleague who were booked on flights due to leave around 8pm.  I think she got to bed around 2am.

The hotel was a cheap one I found on  It started off a bit badly when the night porter tried to let me in and managed instead to lock us both out, asking if I had a phone so he could get us back in.  Poor guy - I think it was one of his first nights on the job.   The hotel was nice, and I slept just fine, and walked over to the part of campus of the University of Edinburgh where the science stuff is.  Of course, it is a rule of old Universities that arts subjects happen in the old buildings in the centre of town, and science subjects in new buildings further away.  

The meeting went just fine.  There were a bunch of talks by different members of the UK community - an overview, then talks from different physics areas.  I covered, or tried to, all the physics areas where theorists contribute.  I think people generally listened to my talk, and there were certainly a few questions at the end.  

Following lunch, I can say that the University of Edinburgh mass catering department is quite good.  The sandwiches were reasonable, and they had these nice empanada things with hot sauce, which I ate perhaps too many of.  In fact, straight after lunch I shared a taxi with some STFC brethren (including sororial brethren) to the airport, sitting in one of the fold-down seats that face backwards in black cabs and soon developed quite some travel sickness.   I have no idea if the over-consumption of these empanadas was a cause. To be fair, the cab was jolting about quite a lot, and I guess it was nice in some ways that the driver mounted the pavement to get us to the airport sooner.  Boy, I felt sick though.  Elizabeth gallantly swapped seats with me, which helped, but it wasn't until around the time I got on the flight that I really felt much better.  Weird - I don't often get travel sick these days, though I did when I was a kid. 

The taxi ride inspired the title of this post, from this poem by Stephanie Green 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

I wanna be nuclear theory

I'm heading to Edinburgh later today in readiness for a meeting tomorrow morning.  The meeting is a NUPECC (Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee) meeting in which various members of the UK nuclear physics community are being asked to present talks to the committee to give them an overview of what goes on in the UK in nuclear physics research.  

I've been asked to give a talk entitled "Nuclear Theory in the U.K."  Hopefully all the committee members will understand the provenance of my title slide, shown in the picture attached to this post.